Review: Fawn Limbs – Darwin Falls
I was vaguely familiar with Fawn Limbs‘ mathematical chaos and had some idea of what to expect but Christ alive I was floored by Darwin Falls in a way that’s sent me right through the backlog. The absolute punch behind it is as admirable as the sheer majesty of the bigger picture containing it. How to even categorize it? A mathy, noisy, blackened sludge/post-rock/death metal/jazz collaboration? That’s going to have to do. Avant-garde is always a safe label for experiments and outsider sounds that blend the old with the new, the beautiful with the horrible. Darwin Falls is one of those albums that makes the scoring system I’d normally do when writing about music feel redundant because I don’t really have any critical notes, I’m just here to describe how hard this shit rips and completely validate their vision. In fact, this album kind of broke my reviewer brain and reviewing in general with how delightfully deviant it is. I write further, not in confidence, but in exploration.
Often music writers will say the old cliché involving throwing everything and the kitchen sink at the wall as some kind of wind up for a critique about none of it sticking, but bare with me because on this album, Fawn Limbs throw everything and the kitchen sink at the wall and every single thing that hits the wall makes a really cool sound that contributes to an overall meaningful, memorable audioscape. I know experimental and hardcore bands fucking loathe being compared to other bands, but there’re some incredible vibes here that make for a gripping album on a sonic level. It truly picks at your brain, triggering random and distant sense memories of the entire spectrum of music. Avant-garde is one of those genres, where if done right, you’ll be compared to anything and everything under the sun from the academically correct comparisons to the foolishly bizarre ones—for which I am known to do the latter!
It’s like if half of Dillinger Escape Plan and half of The Number Twelve made a black metal album together. It’s like if Aphex Twin wanted to make a hardcore album. It’s like if Dog Fashion Disco did a musical score to accompany Lars von Trier‘s Antichrist. It’s like if Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now played some smooth jazz while recording his eerie thoughts of slugs and razorblades. If you load up an iPod 50/50 with grindcore and Ulver concept albums, drop acid and flee to the woods alone at night, you might come close to nailing the vibe of Darwin Falls. If the Dog Fashion Disco comparison seems brutishly absurd then I insist that you to listen to their 2006 album Adultery AFTER listening to Darwin Falls on repeat because you got it on CD or one of four available vinyl variants!
I swear there’re similarities to Adultery in execution and it’s one of my favourite albums, so I do not mean even a slither of disrespect to Fawn Limbs here whose sound is so much more dire and punishing than the silly playful nature of DFD. Darwin Falls is similar in that it’s not an entirely “musical” album. It’s audio cinema unfolding scene by scene incorporating story telling, anti-music twists, folk whimsy and blastbeats into their core post-math-noise blueprint. Weaving spoken word throughout to set a visceral tone and noir vibe. It’s as bananas as all that and more but Fawn Limbs makes it all their own by packaging it in an obscenely coherent way. It’s SO extreme and yet… weirdly accessible.
The opening track, “Nesting Lumens,” is a good example of the essential duality where the harsher elements wash out the clean parts like waves on a rising tide slowly eroding the unstirred sunbathed sands. They come in and then fall back, repeatedly, coming in a little further each time. It sets the expected tone for the rest of the album perfectly without showing all of its dazzling cards up front. “Dead Horse Cavern” really shows off the pure blast power of the band. It’s doing the inverse of the rising tide that was “Nesting Lumens” and instead sneaking in the occasional quiet moment in what is otherwise an absolutely torso-obliterating chunk of bullshit. If the album were entirely that heavy, it would be too exhausting to even listen to till the end. I’d have to sit down and drink some water, so I’m glad the sound follows the heart of the moment as the story unfolds. After listening to endless riffs-oriented songs from bands trying to constantly one up the other bands writing for the sake of riffs all year, it’s really a treat to fall into a carefully crafted progression like this. Just as the beginning was perfect, so is the end. This will be my night walk album for a good while.
It’s a fucking journey, crafted by a big cast of fantastic musicians. Unlike in previous releases there are no other vocal contributions, just the one very dynamic screaming performance at the heart of Fawn Limbs. A narrator stuck in the bowels of a twisted maze, using their voice to poke the other inhabitants navigating the cruel labyrinth with their assorted instruments and trinkets. I adore the ability to manipulate the compositions with such an immense amount of sound layering and and I adore the written word aspect. This is a huge effort coming from a huge collaboration, just look at the credits here for an idea of the variety of instrumentation on hand:
Eeli Helin – Vocals/Guitars/Noise
Lee Fisher – Drums/Narration
Samuel Smith – Bass
Stéphane Babey – Electric cello
David Burke – Trombone
Michael Frei – Piano/Wurlitzer/MikroKorg/Mellotron/Voice
Hanna Ott – Oboe
Philippe Simon – Trumpet
Richard Spencer – Viola
Iván Zapata – Saxophone
Alright alright, I’ll actually talk about the story now since I’ve talked about how story-driven it is a bunch, what kind of writer would I be without reading every bit of lyric? Does this mean I’ll interpret it correctly? No. It’s a deeply passionate and personal style of writing, a vicious code for which exists no perfect cipher. Somewhere between a disturbed fantasy and a metaphor driven memoir. A style I am personally very fond of both reading and writing, it’s the kind of chaotic writing where emotion meets concept in moments of inspiration and the words just pour out of your sensitive body until you’re left exhausted. Probably written in pieces over time when such inspiration was afforded, sometimes lengths of time spent wondering if it would come around again and ever be completed. IM NOT PROJECTING, YOU’RE PROJECTING. The lyric sheet was even presented to me as paragraphs rather than in typical (and strict) lyric form. I’ll include a couple of favourite excerpts at the end.
As you may have guessed, the story primarily has two voices, the spoken and the screamed. The screams, they are very good. There’s a scream during the track “Wound Hiss” that sounds like a feral dog barking at you to back the fuck up as the hairs on your skin raise in retreat. At other times the screams are elongated in such a way that by the end of the scream it sounds like the death rattle of an oversized ruminant mammal. This voice is an aggressive one in terms of writing, with lyrics seeking answers from someone specific, from within and from the listener all at once. Pointing fingers all over the place but there’s no one there so the fingers go wandering, the nails scratching one’s own face in distress. It feels very present and alive as it processes pain, regret, anger and contemplation. An ever-moving mouth actively trying to survive, right now, as you’re reading it.
When the words are spoken, they are not spoken softly or sweetly as I’m more accustomed to in certain bohemian strains of post-hardcore. They are filled with grit and cigarette smoke. This voice is more passive but no less unsettling in content; it’s a past tense sort of memoir focusing on the feelings of a specific moment, capturing the environment and describing the events poetically. It zooms right in on the rawest moments. It doesn’t question, it doesn’t even try to guess at an answer. It simply describes scenes, seeming to follow a character at different difficult points in their journey to desolation or perhaps salvation in psychosis. These parts are the easiest to hear as they are spoken so you can listen carefully to follow that story yourself. The screaming voice interrupts with its own pieces of the lyrics rather than continuing the spoken lyrics in a typical alternating fashion. This in itself is another interesting writing experiment or exercise, showing just how crucial the written word is to this album.
To go into it more conceptually (and entirely speculatively), it appears to initially communicate with a demon inside the heart of mankind and unravels what put it there. Think of the kind of person who would rather leave a place of love, safety and familial responsibility and go die alone in the woods somewhere fighting on behalf of a cold uncaring system. And then think of how an increasingly harsh political or technical environment could twist and destroy that place of love, safety and responsibility until all that’s left of its inhabitancy are angry husks seeking closure in the form of revenge or a thirst to hold the oppressor responsible—even if that eventually means holding yourself accountable and the turmoil that brings.
When I read through it, I imagined someone kind of between all that, someone who doesn’t feel they’re home but also doesn’t believe in the cause they’re warring for, but rather is a being seeking self destruction. Scenes of an injured human in the woods somewhere writhing half dead surrounded by endless animals each in their own varying states of battle, reproduction and death. A state of mind fluctuating between nihilism and wanting to archive every escaping memory, some of which used to be attached to an emotion beyond survival.
The ending is perfect in the way the writing concludes the character and the music dissociates in a fever dream fashion to accompany it. It gives me moods I haven’t felt since reading VanderMeer‘s Southern Reach Trilogy with the resistant nature concept that contemplates nature’s physical relationship to humans. The way in which this human sought to escape a life curated for them by oppressors or predetermination, and into the mouth of madness that is nature, only to struggle and bleed traversing the landscapes. Fighting the fangs of every jagged rock. The physical relationship the animals have to nature is very different, they’re in tune with it, assimilated. The human is not and so the human is shredded mind and body, inch by inch over long arching minutes, hours, days, until finally… they are dissolved. Whether that means total death or a kind of ego death or a mutation/disease allowing for assimilation after so much struggle and fighting for it—I have no idea but I love the possibilities the lyric writing provides for one’s imagination.
Quite simply, Darwin Falls is an inspiring work of art!
From “Nesting Lumens”, ‘scream’ voice:
You’ve abandoned your homes and everything that you ever loved, and for what? You have voluntarily exchanged the dearest wishes for the screams for help from men you don’t know. You have replaced the innocent, sky-blue beloved eyes for a set of empty dead ones. Told where to shit, where to stand, and how to proceed, yet you can’t fathom what’s wrong while you caress the ragged holes in your body instead of the heads and hair of those you adore. Wavering as you bask in a shower of lead and cast a naive plea to be anywhere but here. A tapering frame of light thrusting you into a state of incandescence, as the throes of fear set in.
From “Dead Horse Cavern”, ‘spoken’ voice:
I woke up abruptly, gasping, as each inhaling inflicted a poignant sting in my chest. Apparently something had bit me, as none of the other cuts burned the way this fresh one in my ankle did. Obviously unsettled and alarmed, I rummaged through my bag, scraping my fingers on the twigs as if I’d find anything from there. When the initial panic abated, I groped around my thoughts to realise I had a belt, the one I took from that one poor bastard trapped under two thousand pounds of deceased meat. The howls of agony and moans for help parting his cracked lips as I walked away still haunt me vividly, but I guess that’s just life – I can’t focus on dead things now.
From “Noose Gestures”, ‘scream’ voice:
A cloak, an ashen pelt to keep you warm in the black maw of night. But the darkness has its teeth, cutting their way into your head to dredge the hidden ore. Nauseating stench emerges as you throw the limbs to the fire pit. A beckoning voice reverberates in the spray, luring you to the vessel of harm. Dripping disgust and promises that will remain unfulfilled for years to come. Alone and broken, reminiscing a gentle swaying embrace from someone whose face you can’t recall anymore.
From the final track “Dissolver”, ‘spoken’ voice:
As I reached the skyline with my hand stretched to reach the lap of space, I heard someone calling my name. All of a sudden, the miles-tall tree I conjoined with ceased to grow, then disappeared. And I fell. I fell for a long, long time. Then everything went black again. I pulled my eyelids open with my fingers to let in the torrid morning light. A fever rose during the night, and I could see how the colour of the skin around my ankle, below the belt, had started to darken. My body and soul tarnished, I reclined on the pile, gathered my thoughts, and after a while, embarked on the toils of a new day.